“Spotlight” – A Review

8 Nov

SpotlightThere will come a point in the not-too-distant future when a deep investigation of police brutality will make even cop defenders shake their heads in disbelief. For years now we’ve had police recorded on phones and captured on surveillance cameras beating and killing suspects, mostly minorities. Those who blindly defend police officers say that there is a war on cops (Obama’s fault), have appropriated the hashtag #bluelivesmatter, and have gone after anyone who claims that the police have done anything but serve and protect. Recently, police unions throughout the country are pushing for a boycott of Quentin Tarantino’s new film because he marched in an anti-police brutality rally. Of course not all cops are bad. The problem of police brutality is not one of a few rotten apples, but of a system and culture that enables these horrendous actions and then serves to protect the perpetrators.

The same can be said of the Catholic Church sex scandal that rocked the world a few years ago. At first it seemed like a priest here and a priest there were responsible for a few isolated incidents of pedophilia, but as the facts surfaced the public learned just how widespread this cancer had spread. The problem was not a matter of a few priests, but of Church officials who willingly covered up the abuse.

The unraveling of this scandal is the heart of the new film Spotlight. Set in Boston in 2001, the film follows the efforts of the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe as they first investigate the allegations against one priest, than thirteen priests, then eighty-seven, and finally the cover-up perpetrated by Cardinal Bernard Law and the Archdiocese of Boston. A well-made, solid piece of craftsmanship, Spotlight is a good film that never attempts for greatness. Carried by a team of terrific actors, the characters they portray are given very little more than perfunctory backstories. At times riveting, the film has slow patches where exposition is dumped upon the audience. Still, a poor man’s Sidney Lumet film is still a Sidney Lumet film, and Spotlight is that rare movie that celebrates hard work, competence, and moral drive.

When Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) is hired as the editor of the Boston Globe he makes his voice heard almost immediately. Noting a little-read article about a priest accused of molesting over eighty children, he assigns the Spotlight team to investigate. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Spotlight is an autonomous office within the Globe which tends to do long-term reporting. This investigation, however, is immediately stymied by attorneys for both the Church and the victims.

It is when we first meet the victims that the film takes off. The first one comes across as a conspiracy theorist and a crank, claiming that not only is the abuse much more widespread than anyone ever imagined, but that the Church has been covering for priests for nearly half a century. The four Spotlight reporters are all lapsed Catholics, but even they are shocked by these accusations.

These four characters (played by Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) react to the investigation in different ways based on each one’s perfunctory backstory. Keaton is the favorite son who went to Boston College High School and is friendly (though never too friendly) with Boston’s power elite; Ruffalo displays the most open hostility towards the Church; McAdams has the grandmother who goes to Church three times a week; and James is the family man who worries about the defrocked priest living a block away from his kids. That is the extent these characters are fleshed out.

Far more interesting are Schreiber’s Marty Baron and Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian, a disheveled self-righteous attorney representing the victims. As Garabedian points out, both he and Baron are outsiders (Garabedian is Armenian, Baron is Jewish and not from Boston), which enables them to see that something is not right with the Archdiocese. Schreiber’s Baron is soft-spoken, calm, almost Zen-like in his demeanor. Every time the Spotlight team gets stuck, he gives them a little shove in the right direction. He is the one who tells them not to investigate the priests and that their job is not to take down Cardinal Law – they are to take down the system. Where Keaton describes himself as a player-coach, Baron is more a general manager who is able to not only modify the investigation, but keep the competing egos in check.

The system that Baron wants taken down is everywhere in Spotlight. It’s not just the hierarchy of the Church. It’s cops who refuse to put priests in handcuffs and district attorneys who decide against prosecution. It’s judges who only keep their seats by the Church’s good graces. It’s the publisher of the Globe who – like many others – asks, “You want to sue the Church?!?” because that is simply not done. But this system is deeper than just people in power. It’s also ordinary people like Keaton’s Robinson who admits that in the back of his head he’s always known something was fishy. It’s the everyday people of Boston who look away because they cannot stomach the idea that their parish priests could do something so vile.

The film excels at depicting the various strands of this system. From the top – Cardinal Law gifting a copy of the Catechism to the Jewish Baron; to the middle – lawyers warning the Spotlight team to stop digging up dirt on the Church, or else; to the bottom – slammed door after slammed door after slammed door at the houses of working class people who refuse to go public about the crimes committed against them.

Spotlight, while harkening back to Alan J. Pakula’s seminal All the President’s Men, as many of the films of the aforementioned Sidney Lumet, is probably closer in quality to Ron Howard’s The Paper. Every time director Tom McCarthy has a great scene going he undercuts it by falling into various Filmmaking 101 traps. Too many scenes – especially early on – serve as exposition dumps. Oftentimes the score gets a bit too busy, distracting the audience from the action. Worst, are the handful of montages, an overused cheat whose only purpose in most films is to depict the passage of time. (A little bit of snow on the ground would have done the trick, this is Boston after all.) Particularly offensive is one late montage done to a children’s choir singing “Silent Night,” which is simultaneously tacky and unnecessarily ironic.

McCarthy is a skilled filmmaker, who has succeeded before with both The Station Agent and the magnificent The Visitor. Both work because he let the story tell itself. While Spotlight is a good film, it is only great when McCarthy stops interfering with the process. When he doubts his own talent, he gets fancy, and the film becomes far more ordinary.

None of these criticisms should shy you away from seeing this film. It’s a good piece of entertainment regarding recent history. In that way it is similar to Argo, a well-made film that just about everyone liked, but very few loved. And therefore, I predict Spotlight to win Best Picture.

Final Grade: B-

See In Addition

The Verdict (1982). One of Sidney Lumet’s best films. Paul Newman as an alcoholic, ambulance chasing, Boston lawyer who is – ahem – suing the Archdiocese. Lots of mahogany, dark shadows, and hungover Paul Newman. Perfectly captures the power that rules a city.

Gone Baby Gone (2007). Ben Affleck’s directing debut, and a knockout. Depicts the blue collar elements of Boston with grace and authenticity.  

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